Leagues breaking their own "rules" on TV fixture hell

Sky Sports Studio Ross G Strachan

They say rules are there to broken and, in recent weeks, both the Premier League and Football League have been doing just that – breaking their own “rules” at the expense of match-going fans.

The Premier League have always said they aim to give supporters six weeks’ notice ahead of any fixture changes while the Football League commits to a shorter 28-day period. Yet both have thrown fans under the bus in recent weeks in order to satisfy the whims of broadcasters.

The list of fans who’ve been hurt by last minute TV changes is long and the latest to feel the pain are Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough fans. They face each other on Sunday (13th March) and were given only 17 days’ notice that the game would be moved from its original Saturday 3pm slot.

Writing in Teesside’s Evening Gazette journalist Anthony Vickers described Sky as rolling “a hand-grenade” into the carefully prepared plans of thousands and outlined how fixtures changes leave fans feeling powerless. “That needs addressing urgently. By government intervention if necessary. No other product or service is delivered in such an arbitrary fashion and with no redress. It is a scandal,” writes Vickers.

Robert Nichols from Boro fanzine Fly Me To The Moon says it has left supporters completely dumbfounded and out of pocket. Boro did offer £50 compensation to cover rebooking rail tickets although the FSF heard from fans who would still lose out by £75 each.

“Appalling disregard”

“At present games can in theory be moved to any day between a Thursday and a Monday. The only slight crumb of comfort was that we felt they would always give us a month or more notice. Not now. 17 days!” says Rob.

“We certainly need to express our opinions and protest loudly about what is surely a new low by Sky and apparently ratified by the Football League with an appalling disregard for paying football supporters.”

Rob worries that Sky Sports are using the recent Leeds United-Middlesbrough game as precedent for shifting games last minute. A Football League statement in January said a legal challenge from LUFC had delayed that fixture announcement. Leeds United refused to comment at the time.

Now you might think Leeds and Middlesbrough aren’t that far away from each other, so disruption would be fairly minimal. Maybe a few quid here and there to rebook a train fare – but it’s “only” a few thousand away fans disrupted, right? Wrong.

We heard from Jon Erik Kristiansen – a Norwegian Leeds United fan who organises group trips from Scandinavia. He sent us a list of 34 fans set to lose £400 each in flights and hotels thanks to the rescheduled kick off. That’s £13,600. Jon said he tried to get the money back from Sky and the Football League: “They don’t wanna answer when I call them. Total ignorant attitude and no refund.”

It’s not just fans from abroad who contacted the FSF with a similar story. Richard Robinson is a Leeds United fan based in Luton while his son studies at university in Newcastle. Both are season ticket holders at Elland Road.

“I am increasingly appalled by the way paying football fans are treated by TV companies. My son, aged 20, is at university in Newcastle and had already booked his train ticket for the Saturday. When the match was changed the ticket was obviously invalid,” says Richard.

He contacted the Football League for a refund – “patronising beyond belief” – and Sky. The broadcaster offered merchandise in lieu of a train ticket refund. And it wasn’t even Leeds United gear.

“Why would my adult son want a teddy bear of Paul Merson or Matt Le Tissier?” asks Richard. A question to which there is literally no answer.

Producer “fluffs” it and fans lose out

Leicester City’s unexpected title challenge meant the Foxes trip to the Emirates in February transformed from run-of-the-mill game to potential title decider. Sky’s interest was piqued and, at only 23 days’ notice, the game was moved in the face of fan protests from 3pm on Saturday February 13th February to noon the following day. Broadcasters 1 – 0 Fans.

The Premier League say they will only move games within the six week period on “extremely rare occasions” which isn’t good enough for Leicester City fans’ group Union FS.

“The deliberately vague nature of their rules on this must be tightened. In this case it appears that the exceptional circumstances were that some [Sky Sports] producer fluffed his lines when selecting games back in December. That should be a case of 'tough luck' on the broadcasters rather than the match-going fans,” said Leicester City fans’ group Union FS.

Arsenal Independent Supporters Association (AISA) sympathised and pointed out that many Gooners faced the same problem in 2014 when an away fixture against Hull City was moved with less than two weeks’ notice.

“Whilst conscious of the value that TV revenues bring to the game, it remains essential that broadcasters also recognise and embrace the value of football supporters. A balance needs to be struck to ensure that supporters who invest time, money and commitment in attending games are not unfairly prejudiced,” said AISA.

Arsenal Supporters Trust backed this up: “Match-going fans deserve better. Changing kick-off times at short notice creates extra inconvenience and cost for fans. No kick-off time should be changed for television coverage with less than six weeks’ notice given.”

Fleetwood Town v Shrewsbury Town

The problem isn’t limited to the Premier League and Championship of course – the whirlwind whips right through the pyramid. The National League (aka the Conference) has a three year deal with BT Sport which means more Monday and Friday night games. Oh joy.

Mark Bromilow is a Shrewsbury Town fans who had booked travel for his side’s trip to Fleetwood Town only for the game to be rescheduled with 23 days’ notice. Four of his party had booked rail tickets and B&B. Two were making the journey from Brighton – changing their rail tickets would cost more than £100.

The Football League said the knock on effects of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Final being televised on Thursday was that Fleetwood Town-Shrewsbury Town would be moved back to the Sunday. The Football League said: “They [Fleetwood Town] were also informed to make their Saturday opponents [Shrewsbury Town] aware they could ask to move to the Sunday if required.”

“I wonder whether Fleetwood Town did actually inform Shrewsbury Town of this and, if they did, then why wasn't this information filtered down to us supporters?” asks Mark.

No favours are handed out to match-going fans when it comes to planning ahead. Does the music or theatre industry move performances at a couple of weeks’ notice because a TV audience would like to watch the show on a Sunday afternoon? No.

Football fans have to constantly balance time considerations against financial ones, especially those who travel by train. Cheap train tickets generally go on sale 12 weeks ahead of travel, yet broadcasters can move games seemingly at will. Broadcasters’ rights trump those of match-going fans when it comes to the crunch.

Expect more of these complaints again next season when the number of televised games is set to increase.

How to solve that? Supporters have the moral argument on our side - but that argument hits hard against the brick wall that is the multi-billion media deal that all professional clubs benefit from (right down to non-league level thanks to “solidarity” payments and transfer fees).

Past calls for broadcasters to compensate fans have also fallen on deaf ears – they argue they’ve already paid clubs billions and it is up to football clubs to manage the disruption that causes.

It is a big challenge and one we’d love to hear from our members about practical ideas which can help lessen the burden on match-going fans. We have met with various broadcasters in the past and will continue to do so in future to argue the supporters’ corner.

This issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

More from the FSF:

Thanks to Ross G. Strachan for the image used in this blog. Reproduced here under CC licence.